I couldn’t let our relationship-themed month go by without writing about one of my absolute favorite inter-personal topics: friendships, specifically with people of the same sex. And given this week’s deeply disturbing Supreme Court ruling on DOMA, it’s more important than ever that we talk about healthy same-sex relationships.
There’s a lot of debate these days about whether men and women can be “just” friends. (I enter this debate with as much vigor as anyone else, but always at the back of my mind I have to laugh at it. Everyone I know counts people of both sexes among their “friends,” so even as we question whether or not we can be friends, men and women ARE friends with each other…at least to some extent.) But no one debates that a girl needs her girlfriends and a guy needs his pals.
Except that I’m about to.
I’ve been re-reading C.S. Lewis’ “The Four Loves,” and I spent a delicious Sunday afternoon recently perusing his chapter on friendship. You may perhaps be as surprised as I was by one telling statement: friendship is the least necessary of all human loves. We can’t survive or continue as a species without eros (romantic love) or affection (obvious example: kids need mom to love them), and theologically speaking we also need charity. But friendship we do not need. In fact, we enjoy it so much precisely because we don’t need it.
Looking back at my own life, I have to admit nothing has destroyed or harmed my friendships, especially with other girls, more than neediness, whether on my side or the other. “Need” automatically places a burden on the relationship, one that requires one side to act or respond in a particular way. If I “need” someone to be my friend, she can’t do so freely. She may answer my calls because she feels guilty, or doesn’t want to hurt my feelings, and she may even agree to hang out once in a while, but we won’t be equals in the relationship, and it won’t actually be a full, healthy friendship.
This is not to say I don’t occasionally need things from my friends, or they from me. Who hasn’t gotten the 2 a.m. phone call for a ride to the airport or the emergency room, or just a listening ear in a particularly dark hour? Any relationship comes with its share of burdens and requests. But the friendship itself — the relationship — is not a need. It’s a gift, and no one “needs” a gift, however much she might want it.
This holds true, of course, in “Platonic” male-female friendships, where they exist. In my own experience, though, I find it gets murkier here. From my observations (limited, I admit), women and men enter into friendship expecting different things. Women look to friends for emotional connection first and foremost. We like to spend time together, to talk, to establish a relationship based on shared stories as well as shared experiences. From what I can tell, men seem to seek out friends first of all based on shared interests and experiences, whether it be a shared faith, shared interest in philosophy, a love of football, or going out drinking on Friday nights.
The desire for emotional connection on women’s side can tend to look like neediness in male-female relationships, since that isn’t necessarily something a man wants or offers in a friendship. And once you cross that boundary, it’s often a point of no return for “just friends.” But perhaps I’m generalizing here.
Regardless, friendships between men and women can never be as free as friendships between women and women, and between men and men. I’m much more free to bring my emotions and thoughts to my girl friends, and to invite them to share that part of my life with me, because there’s never the “danger” of romance. Or at least, there shouldn’t be.
In short, friendship is free, by its nature. There’s no compulsion in friendship, and as soon as compulsion enters, it weakens the friendship. It can even destroy it if we aren’t careful.
I don’t need to have friends. I GET to have friends, and I get to be one. If you enter a relationship simply because you “need friends,” you’re setting the friendship up for failure — or at least, to be an anemic sort of friendship. We need companionship the way we need affection, in order to survive. But we don’t need friendship.
I’ve always found I stumble upon new friendships with surprise. There’s this “A-ha!” moment, when we both realize we enjoy the same things, or maybe we have the same reaction to a joke, or we have a shared love of F. Scott Fitzgerald or a shared desire to live in an attic for at least six months and churn out that book we’ve been planning to write for five years.
Perhaps I’m going a bridge too far, but I wonder, with the rise in homosexual relationships — and now the open door to same-sex marriage — what will happen to that freedom in same-sex friendships? As we blur the lines between men and women, we also blur the bonds that men can form with men and women with women. Already too many men avoid male friendships (aside from “buddies”) because they fear the stigma of looking “too gay.” Sooner or later, women may follow suit.
So it’s crucial that those of us who understand make sure our lives are fortified by strong, free, same-sex friendships.
And I want to take a moment to thank all of my friends, especially my girl friends. Thanks for being so delightfully unnecessary. Thanks for being the free choice I get to make on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. I love you, and I don’t have to love you, and I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual. What a gift.